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Faces of Austin Seminary

Presbyterian Church inspires action in the public arena

James Talarico’s first step on the journey from a nine-year-old protesting in favor of hate-crimes legislation in front of the Governor’s Mansion to being named one of the ten best Legislators in Texas began in a Presbyterian church.

“St. Andrews in north Austin (Rev. Dr. Jim Rigby MDiv/DMin’79, pastor)—it’s still the church I go to—really shaped my worldview," he says. "My church always taught me that the love of Jesus Christ is both universal and radical. That’s how I got into politics … If we really love our neighbors as ourselves, that requires us to enter the political arena, because that’s where justice is won.”

The activism he learned as a child continued as a UT student interested in college affordability and education for all. That led to becoming a public-school teacher in one of the poorest zip codes in the state of Texas, which led him to run a nonprofit and ultimately to a successful run for the Texas Legislature at the age of twenty-eight.

After two terms as the youngest member in the Texas House, Talarico was named one of the Ten Best Legislators by Texas Monthly magazine in 2021 noting his intelligence, collegiality, and street smarts: “Like any good millennial, Talarico is a savvy user of Twitter. In April, following a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis, he authored a thread about paying $684 for his first thirty-day supply of insulin and received more than 60,000 retweets. Over the next few weeks, he was instrumental in passing a bill limiting insulin co-pays to $25 a month.”

Other achievements have been legislation to allow incarcerated minors to earn a high school diploma, cap pre-K class sizes, and improve early childhood, a bill Texas Monthly described as “twenty years in the making.” His plans for the current Session are even more ambitious. He has introduced or co-signed onto several initiatives, including:

  • A $15k teacher pay raise
  • Closing remaining child prisons in Texas
  • Allowing Texans to buy their prescription drugs cheaper in Canada
  •  Stopping surprise ambulance billing
  • Providing tax relief to childcare centers

James started seminary because of Jesus’s two commandments, Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and Love your neighbor as yourself. He says, “Those were given as two equal commandments because you need both. I had been politically active since high school, but I felt I needed to explore that first commandment, and I thought there was no better place to do that than Austin Seminary.”

This semester he is taking “Intro to New Testament" with Dr. Rod Caruthers, and Hebrew exegesis of Genesis with Dr. Suzie Park. The early morning and late afternoon classes bookend his 9-5 gig at the State Capitol. That schedule “feels balanced,” he says. “When I’m here at the Capitol I’m really focused on “Love Neighbor” through public policy, How do I help my fellow Texans, whether they’re school children, prison inmates, they’re sick and need health insurance. It’s about serving others. But I was missing that first commandment of “Loving God.” That’s what sustains you to do the work of loving your neighbor—which can be exhausting work. Austin Seminary has been providing me the nourishment and energy to do the difficult work at the Capitol.”

As for the future, James says, “I want to continue both tracks … the political and the spiritual work. I would love to run for higher office at the state level but would also like to lead a church someday. That’s always been a dream of mine and it’s still a dream of mine.

“It’s kind of tempting to find literal sanctuary within the walls of our churches and hide ourselves from the world. It’s also tempting to only do political work and never think about the spiritual side and cultivate an inner life. I’ve seen people fall into these two extremes. But I think it’s important to hold them in balance. It can be any type of spiritual practice; what’s important it to keep your inner and outer life in harmony. And that’s what I’m trying to do.

“People at Austin Seminary have been so welcoming and supportive of me. The Texas Capital can be a very difficult place to work. There’s a lot of infighting and backstabbing and scheming, and it’s so nice to have a safe, welcoming, loving place to go.”

Read the Texas Freedom Network's interview with James here.


Alumna shares experience and expertise on grief

Fran Tilton Shelton (MDiv’93, DMin’07) wrote her first book, No Winter Lasts Forever, following the death of her husband, Bob, longtime (1971-2002) Austin Seminary professor, dean, and president. As a Presbyterian minister, her path to this memoir was both personal and professional. She says, “While serving as associate pastor for pastoral care at a large congregation, facilitating grief workshops, and officiating at numerous memorial services, I decided to enroll in classes toward my Doctor of Ministry degree. Dr. Allan Cole, former professor in pastoral care, was my primary teacher. He was both challenging and affirming while guiding me in learning more about the nature and dynamics of grief. After completing my DMin in 2007, a ministry colleague and I designed a monthly model of care for persons in the bereavement process. When other congregations and hospitals inquired about this model, the two of us and another friend co-founded Faith & Grief Ministries (F&GM) in 2011 which provides a variety of opportunities to offer comfort and hope to persons who have experienced the death of a loved one. In 2012, I resigned from serving in a congregation so that I could volunteer my energy, imagination, intelligence, and love to F&GM in order to serve in a larger arena that spans across denominations and faiths.”

In 2021, an acquisitions editor at Broadleaf Books invited Fran to consider writing another book on the grieving process. Fran says, “It didn’t take me long to respond, ‘Yes.’ I knew that I wanted to include spiritual practices because over the years of facilitating grief workshops, I saw, heard, and could feel the comforting benefit that came to participants through such practices.” That book, The Spirituality of Grief: Ten Practices for Those Who Remain, was published this April. As for meeting deadlines imposed by others, she reflected, “I quickly learned that writing is more about discipline than motivation. I also learned, though being a Presbyterian familiar with committee structures I shouldn't have been surprised, that it is a lengthy process. My final draft was due February 14, 2022; additional edits completed July 2022; and the book was released April 18, 2023.  I've thought more than once, ‘That is a long time to wait for a baby!’"

To learn more about Fran and her books, including upcoming book signings (one is in Austin on June 3), visit

Alumni couple creates space for the Spirit among the unchurched

Austin Seminary graduates David and Marta Ukropina co-pastor a "typical" Presbyterian church in Eugene, Oregon. On May 16, 2021, something happened that was anything but typical: close to a dozen youth were confirmed, more than a dozen children were baptized, and several families moved from visitor status and became members. The story Marta wrote about the transformation for the Presbyterian Mission. Read the full story here.

Christianity Today: Why One Texas Pastor Believes Racial Justice Should Start with Stories

Steve Miller

Candid accounts of the daily grind of oppression are a first step toward national healing.

Sarah Holcomb |  

Steve Miller has spent his life listening. The black Baptist pastor will approach anyone with a broad smile, and he draws out stories wherever he goes—whether he’s standing in the checkout line or sitting in a movie theater. He’ll gladly pray for you, as any pastor would, but he also has another mission: He’s collecting testimonies of racism.

In Bastrop, Texas, the small Hill Country town where Miller’s storytelling work began, people remember him as friendly and fearless. When Latrice Kellough first met Miller, the charismatic community leader reminded her of Barack Obama, if Obama wore jeans and a Kangol hat. She was immediately at ease, for reasons she couldn’t put her finger on. She listened as Miller prayed for her, and then he listened as she described the racial discrimination she experienced while working at a nursing home.

Read full story here.


When Professor Jen Lord’s scheduled travel-study pilgrimage to Spain was converted to a directed study over the summer, student Aiden Diaz decided he would walk from campus to the Texas Capitol every day for two and a half weeks, encompassing the freedom days of Juneteenth (June 19) and July 4. He invited people to join him and engage in conversations about racial inequality, being allies, and related topics.

"The pilgrimage idea came out of the big march from Huston Tillotson [University] to the capitol," says Aiden. "I had been to several protests before this and I saw very little representation from our faith communities. The same day as the Huston Tillotson march a white man yelled at me from his car telling me that he was going to kill me because I am black. These factors that gave birth to the idea to walk from Austin Seminary to the Capitol to be a visible representation as a faith leader and as a black person here in the city of Austin. So for 2.5 weeks I walked with several people and allowed them to ask questions, vent, and so on. It was a powerful time for sure."

Aiden continues to examine the issues raised with his pilgrimage walks through the podcast, "Low Key Chaplain."